Hong Kong student activism is one thing; disrespecting others’ views is quite another
Leonard Cheng says with the privilege of higher education comes responsibility: students should practise tolerance, and remember that how we disagree is a litmus test of a civilised society
Each year, in late November, a new batch of Hong Kong graduates line up to receive their diplomas and pass into society. Leaders of higher education then confront afresh a question central to their mission: what kind of graduates do universities aim to produce?
This year, Lingnan University is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its re-establishment in Hong Kong. This question therefore takes on a special meaning for the university. Universities increasingly find themselves in the news as a battleground for student protests, even though the percentage of students involved is usually minuscule. While most students remain apolitical, street protests and politics have spilled over into academia.
Lingnan University has its fair share of student activism. I have no problem with that. Universities are a place for free expression and exchange of views. As president, it is my duty to vigorously defend this intrinsic right, and I appreciate students who are socially active and have an inquisitive mind.
Some say student activism is a by-product of our vaunted academic freedom. Still, freedom of expression is never absolute. It is tempered by a respect for the rights of others with different views. This shared spirit must remain inviolate, for tolerance and mutual respect are hallmarks of the educated and are the ethos of the academic community.
It pains me when I hear coarse language, personal insults or other forms of intemperate verbal expressions hurled at people perceived to be in the other camp. We can all remember the callous remarks made anonymously a few months ago over the death of the son of a senior government official.
Even if things don’t get personal, there is a pattern of reflexive hostile behaviour among some activists who speak not from reasoned argument, but knee-jerk reaction. A case in point: a construction project they oppose is labelled a “white elephant” without meaningful substantiation. This is antithetical to the values of the educated, who recoil from jumping on the bandwagon or parroting slogans that are the political flavour of the month. Equally worrisome, some student activists intentionally ignore facts that contradict their beliefs and distort or manipulate information to show they are right.
As members of society who enjoy the privilege of higher education, our stock-in-trade is the ability to think independently, analytically and critically, grounded in facts and evidence. If a person cannot face basic facts he or she finds inconvenient, can we still talk seriously about truth-seeking?
Oversimplification and demonisation (for example, senior government officials have been referred to as “communist bandits” by some student groups) don’t belong in the academic community. The university has the moral duty to set itself as an example to society where rational dialogue can take place. If we in the university cannot talk to each other rationally and fairly, what hope is there that others can do so anywhere in society? When reason takes a back seat, the art of compromise is dead.
The university is not meant to be a job training centre. Rather, we educate students in the skills of rational analysis and critical thinking. When students criticise or challenge an unsatisfactory status quo, they deserve attention and support. I applaud student advocacy for a fair society.
A great moral argument can be made against growing poverty in a city of plenty, with high rents suffocating entrepreneurship and eroding the quality of life, shrinking opportunities for upward mobility and narrowing horizons for the young and the underprivileged. But progress only comes about if we engage those with the power to change the status quo. Shutting down channels of communication is self-defeating and counterproductive. The ideal university graduate speaks with facts and evidence, obeying the dictates of logic, and does his or her due diligence when making a case for change. I worry when I see students doing things more for the camera or the headlines than for truth-seeking. People with different views, rivals or sceptics can be won over only with logic, knowledge and evidence, not with bluster and a megaphone.
How we disagree is a litmus test of a civilised society. Slogans and labels are no substitute for considered views and rational judgment. When one slaps a label on an opponent, for instance, by calling university senior management and council members “puppets of the rich and powerful”, he or she treats the latter with utmost disrespect.
As graduates step into society, everything they say or do is subject to the test of reason. They are advised to speak as one who knows his/her facts, not self-proclaimed sole custodians of truth, and learn to handle disagreements agreeably. These are the kind of graduates who give us hope for the future.
Leonard K. Cheng is president and chair professor of economics at Lingnan University